A Linguist Walks Into a Mexican Restaurant


July 10, 2017

Issue 25: July/August 2017Last Bite

Hundreds of restaurants in Baja Arizona serve up southern Arizona-style Mexican-themed food—burritos, chimis, tacos, chiles rellenos, cheese crisps (be still, my heart—and make it with rajas of green chile), and combination plates without end. My neighborhood spot offers 18 of these combinations, meaning that we eat the whole cheese crisp and ruin our appetites before we can decide what to order. What with helping my companions with the tough decisions, and worrying that it would look bad if I grabbed the last triangle of cheese crisp, I don’t usually pay much attention to the language of the menus, even though I’m a linguist. But for this essay, I’ve studied the online menus from every Mexican joint south of the Gila that has a web presence (a hungry-making exercise, I can tell you). I’ve noticed once again the unusual mixtures of Spanish and English that show up on many of these menus. Here’s my first stab at answering the question, Why?

In my academic work I’ve found that Spanish is a resource even for deeply monolingual English speakers. They can claim an authentic regional identity by saying “adiós” and “gracias.” By using Mock Spanish expressions like “no problemo” and “el cheapo,” they adopt a desirable colloquial persona—easy-going, with a good sense of humor, and a little bit cosmopolitan (but not too much), because they “know a little Spanish.” But these very same people are likely to see real Spanish as a threat to “America.” They get angry when they hear Spanish spoken in public, or when Spanish-language text—even health and safety directives and legally required bilingual voter guides—appear in spaces that they define as “American.” So menus in Mexican-themed restaurants have to balance on a tightrope, with just enough Spanish to make these folks feel like they are enjoying an authentic experience, but not so much that they feel threatened.

A short list of strategies that authors of these menus use to stay on the tightrope includes “minimal Spanish”—only use little words—as in “Green corn tamale y Cheese Enchilada.” (All these examples are from real menus.) The words can be a bit bigger: “A deliciously grande ½ pound portion,” and it is helpful if these bigger words look almost exactly like English words, as in “Elegante style” and “Ultimo Fajita Skillet! The ultimate fajita treat” (this restaurant apparently thought it was safer to translate even that obvious item). “Mucho,” since it is just English with an O on the end, is useful, as in the “Mucho Very Good Chimichanga.” There is also the roller coaster option: “Large con pollo or carne.” And the “La Brea Tar Pits/Rillito River” strategy: “Smoked ‘Costillas’ Ribs.”

Avoiding Spanish that is unfamiliar to English speakers (in this case, “rico,” meaning tasty) yields grammatical oddities like the “Más Bueno Burger.” Hardy perennials from the Mock Spanish lexicon apparently make diners feel safe: the “Burrito Loco,” the “Macho Burrito,” the “Gordo Burrito,” the “Horchata Borracha” (with rum), and the “Smoky Señorita” cocktail. Inevitably there are “banditos,” years after Frito-Lay had to give up their little guy: the “‘Tres Banditos’ Combo” and the “Chimi Platter for Hungry Banditos.” And of course there are amigos: the “Dos Amigos Caddy” (with two tequilas) and, in full-out Mock Spanish, the “Adiós Amigo” cocktail (“You will have to get a ride home”).

One unfortunate problem is that the mixed register of Mexican restaurant menus may leave critics feeling justified in thinking that “border Spanish” is a degenerate variety that isn’t “real Castilian Spanish,” (which makes about as much sense as worrying that Arizona English isn’t “real British English”). Indeed, a purist can find much that is objectionable: Since it is practically impossible to become biliterate in Arizona’s schools, accent marks turn up somewhat at random, and sometimes in unexpected places, like “pozolé” for pozole. Since the symbol ñ is hidden behind several clicks in North American word processors, “jalapeno” (instead of “jalapeño”) is ubiquitous. And I cannot resist mentioning an obvious case of Google Translate Spanish: “lados” for “sides” (anybody back in the kitchen would have had a better idea).

But I’m suggesting that Mexican restaurant menus are hardly degenerate. Instead, they do a lot of delicate work in a dangerous linguistic environment. Around their colorful margins, there be dragons. ✜

Header image by Dominic Bonuccelli. 

Jane H. Hill, Regents’ Professor emerita of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Arizona, has lived in Tucson for 34 years. When she is not dreaming of the next green chile cheese crisp, she continues her research on American Indian languages.

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